LEADING ARTICLE: A massacre to mark VE DAY

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The Independent Online
NO film crews or photographers seem to have been present last weekend when Russian troops invaded the village of Shamaski in Chechnya. Had they been, Shamaski would by now have been infamous as a place of terrible slaughter and governments in the West would have been forced to make loud protests. So far only France has done so, though pressure is mounting in the United States and Germany. About 250 civilians may have died in Shamaski, at the hands of drugged and drunk Russian troops who were mopping up the remnants of armed opposition. Eye-witnesses have told of grenades lobbed into cellars crowded with sheltering men, women and children; of flame-throwers incinerating houses and their inhabitants; of civilians "roasted like shish kebab".

This particular piece of barbarism, according to informed observers in Russia, happened as part of a strategy to terrorise the Chechens and end the war before 9 May, when President Boris Yeltsin will welcome Western leaders - Clinton, Major and Kohl among them - to VE Day anniversary celebrations in Moscow. In the words of Russia's prominent human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov, the President would like to be able to open his hands and say: "Yes, all kinds of things happened in Chechnya. We deeply regret this, but don't you see the war is over."

The irony is appalling: so that the 50th anniversary of the end of one war can be celebrated without political inconvenience, a current war must be made bloodier. During the old Cold War days, the widening of human rights in the Soviet Union was always part of the arms talks. Today Russia is almost exclusively evaluated by Western leaders in terms of its economic progress towards the free market. What happens to the people there - the person of President Yeltsin apart - no longer seems to matter, though it should.

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